Duplicating Pictures – What’s Original Anyway?


Duplicating Pictures – What’s Original Anyway?

It’s a situation that occurs often enough: Instagramers are talking a walk through the city together and find an interesting location. The picture would be even more interesting with a person in it, so someone, whoever happens to be with you at the time, steps into the picture. This is also what happened here: I asked Michael (www.instagram.com/herr_pola_roid), whether he would be my model.


Michael, on his way

What viewers of this pictures cannot see: Next to and behind me is a group of other Instagramers who are also photographing Michael. I didn’t upload this photo to Instagram, because others had already posted it before me and I didn’t think that it was particularly original to post a picture with so many others very much like it. Because while I was still taking photos of the location and the people, others had already posted their photos of the scenery.

Everyone knows what it is like: Especially on Instawalks it is not easy to take a unique photo, because others have a view of things which is at least very similar to yours. Michael told of something that happened in Hamburg a few weeks earlier, when he modeling for thirty or forty other Instagrammers who were photographing him. He thought that was very peculiar, because up to then he had not thought of himself as a supermodel. When there was only a few photographers left, he took a photo of this scene.


Die Sicht des Herrn Polaroid (Mr. Polaroid’s view); (c) @herr_pola_roid

There is nothing new about my idea for a picture, i.e. having a person walking along somewhere. And even the location where I took the picture as been photographed many times. Therefore I wouldn’t see myself a the creator who has had his idea for a picture stolen. However, situations like that remind us to think about originality and originals: Who actually had the brilliant idea for a picture that no one has had before? And who can develop an individual idea for a picture and make a series out of it that anyone can recognize?



Towards the end of the winter 2011 I started photographing cyclists in Berlin. Like most Instagramers I work almost exclusively with my iPhone, which enabled me to take panning shots. Pictures of cyclists in motion became my trade mark. Even now someone will occasionally ask me if I am the one who photographs cyclists, which I still do, but not particularly often.

These are the types of series and themes that are important if you want to be recognized and remembered. But others will also copy such ideas and develop them further, more or less independently of you. I don’t have any influence on that. Just like I did not have any influence on the photo walk described above, when other Instagramers also photographed Michael and posted a photo of him before I did. Apparently my idea for the picture wasn’t altogether off the mark.

The photo of Michael and the story behind it beg the question of what is an original. Was it my idea for the picture? Hardly. Was the idea copied by others? That, too, can’t be answered unequivocally.

Viktoria Binschtok, an artist from Berlin, explores the connection of originality and copy in her works. In one of her projects the artist has had a look around New York with the aid of Google Street View. She made screen shots of the locations. In the exhibition they were printed in a particular way. Viktoria flew to New York and took photos of the locations she had previously viewed with “Street View”. At times it was easily recognizable that it was the same location. Other photos only hinted at the identity of “Street View” and her own photography. The artist’s concept was such that she only took analog pictures.


Helsinki 2009 – analog picture.

What does this project mean? It is about the question what is “virtual” and what is “real”. According to this logic, the location seen with your own eyes is “real”, while Google Street View only provides us with a “virtual” depiction. The photographic data is not only suspected of not being real, but it also tends to be at risk, because there is no actual material, like for example a photographic negative. That’s the reason the artist uses analog technology to affirm and strengthen the actual material substance of her own pictures.

The project deals with a central question in our photography: What happens with my viewpoint, if I can move in a space which is far away from where I am? I have never been to New York but I can move in that space, thanks to various online offers. It is helpful when you are preparing for photo trips. However, might this skew our viewpoint, because we are too prepared? And don’t we stick too closely to ideas other photographers have had? Should you, as Linda (www.instagram.com/lindaberlin) questions, print out the Street View templates, even if they are not quite the same as reality? I don’t have the final answers to this. Viktoria Binschtok’s work has definitely inspired me to keep thinking about it. You are welcome to write me your opinion about this.


Foggy atmosphere

In her work, Victoria also worked with analog technology. By owning the picture negative, she can prove that not only has she been at a particular place, but also that there is an original that is not airbrushed. The issue is also discussed among Instagramers: To what extent can a photo be edited? But it’s not only Instagramers who discuss this, but also people in general who are interested in photography. An acquaintance who, as far as I know, is not active on Instagram, for example, is against editing photographs (too much) and emphasizes the haptics involved in the process of producing analog pictures. Another person, on the other hand, composes new pictures from different pictures and structures using common picture editing programs. Both are assessing the question of originality in very different ways: One thinks of the analog negative as the original, while the other the existing picture files are (only) the starting point for a new work, which then becomes the original. Such discussions show that digital technology challenges us to re-think our relationship to pictures.

Jörg Nicht 

Jörg lives in Berlin and has been taking photos since he was 12. These days he has more than 500,000 followers on Instagram.

Instagram: www.instagram.com/jn
EyeEm: www.eyeem.com/jn_
Flickr: www.flickr.com/jn_insta
Homepage: www.joergnicht.com

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